Saturday, May 23, 2015

Boundary

There is another truth, universally acknowledged, that a character with a goal of remaining within a precise set of boundaries cannot be allowed to remain within those boundaries with any hope of taking a front-rank role in a story.

By its definition, the story cannot allow this condition to take place, lest it lose its dramatic shape and in the process become a narrative or tale, but not a story.  Adding to the conventions and zoning laws of story, a front-rank character must at some stage feel driven to the outermost reaches of her or his boundaries, then given a shove of sufficient intensity to allow the reader to see that character in a stagger, stumble, or other defensive maneuver to prevent straying over the boundary.

Story wants its A teams, the Protagonists and the Antagonists, to feel the persistent presence of forces that will not stop until the shove has been delivered to the character, and crisis time has arrived.  This is a basic standard for the contemporary story.  In its way, it has been a basic standard  throughout the history of the story, which extends at least to the many tales presented to us at the end of the fourteenth century in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Such is the nature of story that it may be taken out of context, which is to say out of its time of composition, where many of the characters, events, or conventions were of political and cultural moment as well as being a part of a confection assembled to entertain or as well to educate.  Many of the actual politics of, say, the Shakespearean histories, are long past, yet their conflicts, crises of moral choice, and commentary on human nature, seen as pure story, still draw our sympathy and empathy.

We can see enormous changes in social, political, artistic, and scientific boundaries, but we see in many of Chaucer's characters the behavior, attitudes, and agendas of the parade of suspects appearing before us in nighttime television and the popular press.  In a real sense, idiocy and self-interest have been democratized.

Critical theory, applied to story, provides different lenses through which we can see the messages buried within the characters, their strengths and foibles, and their institutions.  Suffer two more examples from Shakespeare:  Hamlet was given the task of avenging his father's murder, a mission that brought what may well have been hidden or sublimated psychological urges out into the open.  

By acting on these dark messages, Hamlet's life was irrevocably shoved over boundaries and into free fall. Macbeth was encouraged to follow the clarion calls of his own ambition, well beyond the boundaries of the man who is presented to us first as a skilled military leader, loyal to his king.  Now, we see him struggle with the conscience at first preventing him from killing his king to being able to step into the persona of an entirely different person.

We leap the six-hundred-year span from Chaucer's time and the four-hundred-year span from Shakespeare to the present, our tastes in the presentation and modes of story enhanced, often to the point where we can no longer with confidence distinguish between the fanciful nature of satire and the human nature of Reality.

Story and human nature have advanced upon our time lines in parallel lines, demanding now that the Protagonist and Antagonist be pushed to the verges of their landscape then forced over.  The unthinkable has come to pass. Now that these worthies have tasted the unthinkable, we assemble to feast on the new possibilities available.

From time to time, either in conversation or written commentary, you hear a yearning for stories that do not appear to celebrate the darker sides of the Human condition.  Well and good; a story need not be dark for the mere sake of darkness any more than it should be light for some misbegotten parental sense that lightness is encouragement and darkness the product of despair.

We had several years of lightness and lightheartedness, thanks to Hollywood as metaphor for the bulk of the motion picture industry.  That vision was manipulated and controlled in ways best described as Orwellian, where even the players were manipulated and kept in a state of thralldom to which generations of young aspired.  Imagine a pre-Civil War teenager yearning to become a slave.  

Story has often taken the role of trespassing on the boundaries of convention, a comet, to use a metaphor, of aspiration, talent, and determination, unwilling to remain locked in the prison of the dual nature of humanity.  The comet hurtles through the space of time, lighting up the sky for those who read and think.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Empathy

It is a truth universally acknowledged among avid readers that they are more likely to remember characters than the circumstances, or plots, in which the characters find themselves caught. 

This truth applies even to characters in novels the reader has been loathe to finish, which moves us toward the notion of the character's goals and foibles are of more value to the reader and the writer than the concatenation of events we've come to think of as plot.

To be sure, we remember some aspects of plot line, but most of these don't remain in memory as long as the character's goals and possible defects or fears.  Only after considering a tense situation in which the character seems to break or behave in an unexpected way do we remember a bit more of the precipitating plot events.  

We remember Henry, often referred to as The Youth in Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of  Courage, fearful that he will turn coward and run in battle.  We remember Scarlet O'Hara's famed closing line from Gone with the Wind, but we may not recall all the details of how she got to that place of optimism or if, indeed, it truly is optimism.  We remember her disastrous encounters with Ashley and Rhett, but unless we've been drawn back to the narrative several times, we are stronger on her presence as a character.

Two robins scarcely make a Spring, but these two characters, both from the same historical era, serve to exemplify the point and at the same time serve to remind us of the reason why characters become memorable in the first place and what the mechanism is to make readers care what happens to them and to enjoy the speculation of what they will or will not do next.

The quality we're looking at here is empathy, which must begin with the writer taking the necessary steps to be able to think the way the character thinks, feel what the character feels, speak the way the character speaks, and this last bit of subtlety, be able to adopt the character's mechanism for subtext.  The character may say one thing but in the regard of that spoken tag, do something altogether different.  The reader needs to know if the character is lying, to whom, and why.

For Empathy to apply and have results, the writer must put him or herself aside.  To give an exaggerated example, the writer must be able to identify with the character to the extent of "being" a person with the height of five feet, six inches, in a room filled with professional basketball players.

The writer must give the reader enough of a sense of the character to cause the reader to feel concern for the outcome of that character's fate.  At least one thing about that character must register with the reader to the extent that the reader begins to experience a sense of unease and concern for what the reader believes the character is about to do next.

One of the most sustained and compelling examples of empathy you've come across in recent years appears with exquisite regularity in a recent collection of short stories, Redeployment, a debut collection from Phil Klay.  Given Stephen Crane's amazing ability to write a convincing narrative about a war that took place before he was born, you could suspect Klay of having come by his information about various levels of service in Iraq from second- and third-hand sources.  But the work brims so full of authenticity, you have to conclude Klay was there, not only from his sensual evocation of Iraq but as well from his portrayal of men and women at many levels of combat and non-combat participation.

The stories are seen through officers, non-coms, and enlisted personnel, including a chaplain.  Ages of characters range from eighteen or nineteen into the forties.  Nearly every individual who appears is now or was in the recent past military, with reference to service in Afghanistan and Iraq.

You had and continue to experience severe opposition to both ventures.  A good deal of residual distaste for the military seeps into your reading of these stories, but this residue is in every case overcome by the author's ability to make his characters available in all their youth, romanticism, and combat readiness that borders on aberrant behavior seem human, frail, believable, and somehow, even while they are presented in their eagerness to rack up battle kills, as commendable individuals.

To cite the last story in the collection, its narrator, a lance corporal in an artillery unit, part of a team that can send shells five and six miles away to work their incredible damage, is seeking proof of his units first kills.  He is at once one of the things you hate most about war and in his vulnerability one of the reasons you care for such an individual and the nightmare aspects of the rest of his life.

Empathy.

A story works best when its protagonists and antagonists change places during the arc of the narrative, which allows us to see how there are always at least two sides to a conflict, and sometimes so many more that the characters never leave us.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Experience

Experience goes to work on the individual like a particle in quantum physics, filled with unanticipated shapes and behaviors. No sooner than it becomes the glue holding memory together when it becomes the ice axe shattering the cold chunk of Reality.

Without experience, you believe you would be a blob of a boy raised on romantic adventures, seeing each bus and street car as a means of transportation to some remote adventure beyond your imagination.  

You believe this is so because of the years of yearning for adventures spawned in books, films, and comics, where you were prompted to believe adventures were to be found with the same frequency you found Indian head pennies and buffalo nickels, rarities in your boyhood but nevertheless possibilities.

You remember one ache of romanticism in which you forebore to exchange the one nickel in your pocket for a Milk-Nickel ice cream bar sold by the Good Humor truck that plied the evening streets of your Los Angeles youth.  

The nickel in question was a worn, graceful buffalo.  How could a coin with such a noble animal not have special magic?  The Jefferson nickel made its debut in 1938, just shy of the time you began to appreciate the appearance and power of the Buffalo nickel.

The experience of change was in the cultural air.  You have noting against Lincoln; in many ways he is your favorite president.  You have against Jefferson only that he was chosen some years before your birth to replace the Indian and the buffalo on the nickel.  Your experience with coins and paper money is in transit to the point where days elapse before you touch either coin or bill.

In a significant sense, experience began to work as a viable force for you then. given the occasional presence of the Indian-head penny, the magical aura of six cents, and the fact that every time your maternal grandfather saw you, he gave you a nickel, and what were the odds then it would be buffalo?

Your good fortune was the turn of experimental events in your life combining with imaginary ones to leave you alert to possibilities in both worlds.  As a result, experience has the metaphor of wave and particle for you, in this case of verb and noun.  

To experience.  What an invitation to alter one's shape and gallery of responses.  What taking of chances, what emphasis on aiming toward outcomes.  Even placing one's self in the absolute middle of that glass-half-full-or-half-empty argument, the potential for the most modest of successes is high.

Experience as a noun, a souvenir of an event.  Perhaps the experience was painful or frightening or in some other way, disagreeable.  Even so, it is an opportunity to form a callous of protection or a scab, signifying an open wound has begun to knit itself closer.  Scabbed or scarred, you are left a different person as a result of that noun, changed as few such experiences have abraded you.

A significant element in story is some degree of change.  The change may be noticed by a character as the change relates to an external relationship or convention.  The change may be some inner resource the character notices in herself.  The change may well be noticed only by the reader, which is, of course, the intent of the writer.  The reader sees what the characters do not.  The reader sees the irony of what can neither be seen nor spoken of.

If change is the engine of story, experience is the turbo of change.  The line is direct and inferential, wave and particle.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Everybody Knows There's No Sanity Clause

For the past few weeks, you've been searching for a definition to a concept that seems to have relevance for you in terms of a book project you're working on, a specific lecture some of your students are pressing you to give, and a personal need for understanding.

The concept appears in your awareness on a daily basis, often more than once a day and from such diverse sources as literature, the world of publishing, the world of university and teaching, the world of local politics, the world of science, the world of national and international politics.  Awareness of the concept is, thus, like following the trajectories of a volleyball during a heated, tightly contested game.

In ways of significant meaning and consequence for you, the conquest in question, or at least its definition, relates to ways in which you see and interpret the world and to the ways in which those minute parts of the world that are aware of you see you and interpret you.

From time to time, the volleyball game is in your head, wherein you are alternately quite crazy or relatively stable in your sanity.  Ah, yes; sanity.  Glad you got around to that, because sanity is the concept for which you've been seeking a definition that will allow the concept to explain itself to you, settle in upon you so that you might proceed with the work you hope to engage, within the time your appointment for living on this planet lasts.

Sanity reminds you of how you were appointed to a position at the university for a non-specified time at first, made aware, as universities seem to enjoy doing, that however glad the university is to have you exposing your interests and abilities to a select segment of the student body, the university wishes to make it clear how your status in the relative spectrum of university status is  of a piece with the status of a mosquito in a rum filled with blood donors.

There are three status levels at this university you can forget about, even were you to aspire to them.  By the nature of your appointment, you are noted on all university records as non-senate, which means you might be tolerated at one or two meetings of the academic senate, should you wish to endure those meetings, but only from the stands.  Nor are you to consider yourself ladder faculty, wherein you are working your way up the ladder of permanence.

In most cases, the university is cordial and you might go so far as to say collegial toward you to the point where some communications address you as esteemed colleague and one or two have addressed you, Hey, Shelly.  However, when interests and opinions engage in faculty meetings or curriculum committee meetings, there have been times when you have been assigned the rank of "you people."

A definition for sanity that has held your interest for the past while takes into consideration the capacity to accurately assess the consequences of actions.  You lean to that definition; it has a nice sense of purpose and awareness.  In fact, you like it a good deal more than the notion of knowing right from wrong or being able to assess moral choice and be able to weigh various of these against one another, choosing the best out of a batch.

You have a good deal of respect for the notion of sanity, no matter if the notion deliberately or accidentally omits some of your favorite choices.  Thus, when you say you approach the polar opposite, you do so with a generous measure of curiosity and pragmatism, finding neither fear nor opprobrium in being considered not sane, which is to say crazy.

Sanity often seems to you joined at the hip with serious and protracted altruism, which is not at all bad, except that for your tastes, it precludes the kind of desperation or sense of being cut adrift that often accompanies some act of genuine creativity while doing your work in the research laboratories of bat shit craziness.

For the longest time, you've considered grief as one of the brightest pole stars of creativity.  It is not so much that one cannot be creative until one has experienced grief as it is fact for you that the forces causing grief are inevitable, while the forces causing creativity are optional.  One either accepts them or does not.  Further proof is that there is grief in creativity.

For now, sanity is creative craziness, a plateau from which you can see above and below the horizons of convention.  This is a place where a number of misbegotten forms gather to compare notes.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Samuel, Nathan, and Jack

By the time you'd reached the age where you encountered the Which came first, the egg or the chicken question, you'd already and without being aware of it chosen the chicken counterpart in another riddle of existential proportion.  Which came first, the reader or the writer?

The answer seemed pretty clear to you all along.  You could;t have taken with seriousness the desire to become someone who wrote stories without yourself having read more of them than you could keep straight.  This decision on your part was pushed over the edge because your own life, at the time, was teetering on the edges of boredom.  At no time has it been lost on you that part of your passion for reading story as well as nonfiction was to substitute the adventure of story for the mere interest in the world and curiosity about how it worked.

In effect, story was for you the motivating force for you turning information into adventurous narratives that were more of a piece with one of the early and now all-but-forgotten forebears of the modern story, Washington Irving.

There is a logic in this chronology that has of late had you up past your bedtime, pondering the implications, some of which began when you were directed by a kindly librarian to investigating the tales of Washington Irving, continuing with your discovery of Twain, first the novelist, then as the memoirist.  By this time, you'd been directed to, or your curiosity took you toward, the ancients whom, at one point, you had no use for.

Why would you want to read anything before Twain?  This had a particular relevance to you because when Twain died, on April 21, 1910, your father was almost the same age you were when you discovered that Twain not only wrote nonfiction, he'd begun having the kind of adventurous life you craved.  No doubt your father was bewildered by your constant reference to the fact that he was alive at the same time as your hero, wondering, no doubt, what he could have done to make that more meaningful.

He'd done quite enough by making Twain seem closer than his books, and by having his own version of the dead pan responses you found so effective in Twain.  Thanks to your father, Twain and his delivery seemed more within your own grasp.  Enter now Nathan Birnbaum, born 1896, meaning he'd achieved fourteen years of living while Twain still set his Conklin fountain pen to paper.  Your father, Mark Twain, and Nathan Birnbaum had in further common the fact that all had a glorious, dead pan sense of timing and a notable fondness for a cigar, each appreciating it for its flavor but as well as a kind of elocutionary tool, a wand, if you will, to use in punctuating their statements.

Samuel Langhorn Clemens changed his name and persona to Mark Twain.  Nathan Birnbaum changed his name to George Burns. You can see sufficient reason to call Burns the Jewish Mark Twain. Your father didn't have any reason to change his name.  Because he was so close, you took every opportunity to watch his moves, study his timing, watch his gestures.  Somewhere in your digital photo album, there is a picture of you taken in June of 2014 on the occasion of a reading and signing of a book of short stories.  

Thanks to cataract surgery in both eyes sometime early in 2013, you no longer need the contact lenses you wore for years, nor the nonprescription-type reading glasses.  At that reading, you wore them, in the interests of a smooth reading performance.  When you saw the picture for the first time, you felt a momentary shift of balance and displacement.  The individual in the picture wore your jacket.  You recognized the shirt.  And with the reading glasses, the picture was complete.  You'd never looked more like your father than at that photo.  In a real sense, what you'd been pointing toward all these many years had converged.  How could someone so physically unlike the author Truman Capote as Philip Seymour Hoffman so convincingly be Truman Capote?  How could anyone so unlike your father finally appear as him?

Well before that time, you allowed nature to take its course and you with it, back to some of the writers you disdainfully considered ancients, finding the comforting presence of Mark Twain, George Burns, and your Father in the person of Geoffrey Chaucer and, for an even more remote example, of an author from the past named Lucius Appuleus.  Another "ancient" was a Scottish writer, Tobias Smollett  (1721--71), in whom you found all but the cigar.

With these worthies in mind. along with the choice discoveries of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Kathleen Mansfield, Virignia Woolf, and George Eliot, you began to see, thanks to their combined and highly personal approaches to narrative, a sense of the long story being the equivalent of a history of human consciousness.  The novel is humanity's equivalent of petroglyphs and the drawings on the interiors of remote caves.

You've come to owe all these worthies you've mentioned and a number of yet more contemporary ones who give you great cause to celebrate each time you spend time deciphering the complex, coded traces of our species.  Of course, when the celebrating is done, and you take some time to assess what aspects of craft and technique and psychology and sensory awareness you've gleaned, you realize how much technique is required, and how much work you got yourself in for when you asked your fourth grade teacher, who'd just read the opening chapters of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to a class deprived of recess because of a rain downpour if persons actually got paid for writing such things.

Even though Mrs. DiAngelo had a strong, nasal New York accent and was wont to pronounce arithmetic as arit-ma-tick, Twain coming from her lips was as Mozart coming from Alicia Dela Rocha.  You had no real idea what it was like to be screwed, not then.  You needed at least another ten years of trying to tell stories and not getting it right to appreciate what being screwed meant.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Looking for the Way Home after Being out among the Stars

NASA has sent the Cassini Mission to Saturn.  You send short stories out as submissions to journals.  Home Again Pet Rescuers sends out a Missing Cat poster with a picture of your cat, Goldfarb, poised and stoic on the bed he has been away from for over a month.  

Last time you looked, there were eleven spam messages in your spam file, offering you inducements ranging from eager Russian brides to medical enhancements that would accrue to the benefits of these Russian ladies, were you to enter the precarious equations suggested.

Writers who have invested time and dreams in the preparation of a manuscript of a novel or story or essay often send them to you before sending them to literary agents or editors or publishers, hiring you to remove any traces or hints of unnecessary presences that will distract from the purpose of the novel or story or essay.

You subscribe to reviews and journals which arrive, bearing the news of books, plays, exhibitions, and forums, some of them related to subjects you did not know existed.  Pen in hand, you go through these publications, marking the books and catalogues you wish to order.  These, too, will arrive in the mail.

In a thought provoking and delightful way, not much has changed since the days of the ancient ones, moving about on foot or raft or some other water borne conveyance, trading, foraging, in constant search of things beyond immediate reach.  

At times in your early boyhood, you'd invent the conceit of going to a library in order to consult with some elder, meaning anything from a Greek philosopher to one of the wandering storytellers lumped together under the name of Homer,  From these consultations, you'd retain some lore or memory of story or poem, perhaps even some fact which might well be useful in current time.

You were then and are now a tiny point of light in a vast space of explorations and radiations, wondering when and if times would come when you would do more than seek consultation, in fact provide something to share with others who sought information or understanding or even experience.

At times, you feel dizzy from such awareness as you have from all these other points of light, reaching out, sending, converting information to other forms, being a part of a vastness that so beggars the imagination that you find yourself having to stop from time to time to make notes of the things you wish to remember, other things these new facts relate to and, by no means least, directions for finding your way back home.

Today, you were looking at paragraphs written by another writer, a well-traveled scholar, who'd managed to get an array of facts down on the page, so buoyed up by attempts to present clarity that she'd lost her way back home.  

Working away with pen in hand, looking to be sure you grasped this writer' purpose, you were caused to think of your late pal Sally, a thirty-pound herd dog, who knew the way home and would settle for nothing less.

Much later in the day, while working on your own materials, you thought about Goldfarb, still being a lost cat poster, you thought about Sally, and thanked her memory for the awareness of the need to find your way home after any venture outward, looking at the skies.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Existentialism of a Tuna Sandwich at Duke's

Earlier this afternoon, at about 1:30, you were standing at the order counter of a longtime favorite restaurant in Ventura, Duke's, hungry for what had become in your mind the iconic tuna salad sandwich, which for you is the Duke's tuna sandwich,always served with a pickle slice of the proper degree of being brined, neither too much pickle nor too little cucumber.

A bright, cheerful waitperson took  your order, her brow furling.  "You mean,"  she said, "the tuna melt special?"

You assured her of your intent, which was not a tuna melt.

For a moment, she seemed relieved.  "The tuna melt does not come with a pickle."

Once more unto the breech, dear friends.  You started fresh.  You did not want a tuna melt,  You wanted a tuna salad sandwich with a pickle.  

"Our tuna sandwich comes with cheese, and no pickle."

"Could you hold the cheese and include an order of pickle, which I would willingly pay for."

"I'm so sorry.  I can't do that.  Our new kitchen supports a modularized menu."

"But the man in front of me ordered a tuna salad, which I imagine is a scoop of tuna on some lettuce, but no cheese, an probably a pickle." 

"I'm sorry.  My hands are tied."

For at least the past five years, when you are dealing with a new group of wannabe fiction writers who are early in their progress, you spend considerable time walking them through architecture of the basic unit of drama, the scene.

When it comes time to provide a link to a stand-alone example illustrative of the shape and rising dramatic intensity of a scene, so much the better if one or more of the students have a laptop or iPad.  You send them to YouTube, where you direct them to look up the first of two instances you want them to remember well into the future.  The first of these comes from a film early in the career of the actor Jack Nicholson, Five Easy Pieces, in which Nicholson plays a troubled and edgy character, Bobby DuPre, who had reached the status of concert-level ability as a pianist. 

The scene you have in mind opens with DuPre in a truck stop coffee shop, trying to order a relatively commonplace breakfast of bacon, eggs, toast, and coffee.  What could go wrong?  Check the scene on YouTube to find out. (Type in Jack Nicholson  Five Easy Pieces, diner scene).  Not quite a spoiler, Bobby DuPre can't get an order of toast with his breakfast, raises the ante by offering to buy a chicken sandwich on toast, for which he offers to pay.  When the waitress repeats the order, DuPre delivers his apparent solution to the entire problem, at which point the scene explodes with interior dramatic intensity.  

On later reflection, after watching and rewatching the scene, you're of the opinion that, extraordinary as it is and as surprising as it is in the overall concept of the story, it was not an absolute requirement in the story.  And yet, on further reflection, the scene could well outlast the entire story because of its shape, its mounting tension, and the manner in which it is resolved.  The Diner Scene is a role model of what a scene should accomplish, and of how every scene in a story should leave the viewer/reader with an emotional impact.

You've never ordered anything other than the tuna sandwich at Duke's, sparing yourself some of the more existential, Five Easy Pieces-type dialogue of today's exchange.  Yet such times appear in Reality, causing a moment where you feel somehow stranded between worlds of your own invention and dialogue and moments of actuality.  Such moments give a sense that the two arenas have colluded against you, leaving you somewhere outside, peering in a window in search of someone who will come to the door, open it for you.

Little surprise then that it's one or more of your characters who open the door, then whistle you in, Over here, bro. In that sense, you see some small possibility of balance, the quirkiness of the inner world you create being an equivalent of graduate school, a few more adventures before you move out into the world of Reality to profess your researches and theories on an unsuspecting public.